Managing two cotton production systems was just not working out for Somerville, Tenn., cotton producers Mark and Joseph McNabb. So this growing season, they went 100 percent ultra-narrow-row cotton — across 1,650 acres.
The conversion included an attempt to plant UNR cotton after wheat on 220 acres. But heavy rains during and after wheat harvest thwarted the attempt, save for a 2.5-acre portion of one field, which will now serve as a test plot to compare the economics of UNR cotton after wheat versus soybeans after wheat.
The decision to convert all their cotton acreage to UNR was a little daunting, according to Mark. But something had to be done.
“Last year, we had a hard time with two systems. Most of our wide-row was in the bottoms, and we had to separate all our labor and our module builders because it was raining and trying to get under water, and we had our UNR cotton here ready to go.”
Essentially, having to run both pickers and strippers with limited labor and only one Boll Buggy, while having to keep UNR and wide-row cotton separate for the ginner, was simply too stressful for the operation.
Pushing them toward 100 percent UNR were several side-by-side tests on the farm in 2002, in which UNR beat wide-row cotton by a half-bale per acre, with comparable quality.
Cost savings in labor and time was another benefit. “No post-direct sprays, no hooded sprayers,” Mark said. “None of that slow stuff. On UNR, we're running 11 miles an hour.”
The McNabbs knew they had the expertise to raise UNR cotton after four years of slowly building to 650 acres — with the help of BASF sales representative and UNR cotton pioneer Sam Atwell. All they had to do was stay focused on what they had learned.
“One key is to plant an early variety as early as possible,” Joseph said.
Then, “Get a good stand,” Mark added. “That's the most important job. After that, it's easy to keep clean because after you get your two applications of Roundup, it will shade.”
Fungicide and insecticide treatments at planting are also important for UNR cotton, although an attempt to add a fungicide as a hopper box treatment this spring had to be abandoned because it “gummed up the planter.”
Another key to UNR cotton: “We don't want it limby,” Mark stresses. “If we go any wider than 10 inches, it will grow a limb and try to put another boll out there. It delays the plant.”
The decision to try UNR cotton after wheat was even bolder than the decision go with so much UNR in the first place. They had never tried the practice before. But Mark believes UNR cotton could work after wheat because it has a shorter growing season.
“Plus I figured there was more money in UNR cotton than in soybeans.”
In addition, planting herbicide-resistant soybeans presented another problem on the McNabb farm. “If you plant Roundup Ready soybeans on cotton ground, it's expensive to get rid of the volunteer RR soybeans that come up.”
In UNR cotton, getting out those volunteer beans is even tougher than in wide-row, McNabb explained. That's one reason why the McNabbs are going with conventional soybeans where they weren't able to plant UNR cotton after wheat.
The double-crop experiment began with a corn crop in 2002, which the McNabbs harvested in late September. They no-tilled their wheat into the corn stubble on Nov. 1. The wheat required one fungicide application.
Wheat was ready for harvest around June 3, but a week of rain kept them out of the field. They finished harvest around June 10, yielding around 60 bushels per acre.
The McNabbs baled the wheat straw, disked twice and ran a Do-al. The tillage was necessary because the ground was still rough with corn residue, and they didn't believe the planter could cut through it. They no-tilled their full-season UNR cotton.
They put down their fertilizer, 80-60-90 plus a pound of boron, the day before they began planting UNR cotton.
The next day, June 12, they had barely gotten started on their first field, when it started raining again. By the time the ground dried up, it was June 23, and their only option was to finish up in soybeans. They selected a conventional variety, Hutcheson, to avoid potential problems with volunteer soybeans.
The good news was that the 2.5 acres they planted on June 12 can now be compared side-by-side with soybeans planted after wheat.
They know they're going to have to stay on top of the double-cropped UNR cotton from here on out. The cotton was starting on its first true leaf on June 23.
According to Craig Massey, University of Tennessee Extension area specialist, “It takes 2,200 to 2,400 heat units for cotton to mature.
“Mark is trying to push it back to 1,600 to 1,800 heat units with UNR cotton after wheat. He's going to tighten the reins on his plant growth regulators and insects and push it all the way through. So it can't be lacking anything.”
The UNR cotton after wheat was planted to Paymaster PM 1218 BG/RR in 10-inch spacings.
The McNabbs applied Cotoran at a pound to the acre at planting and later applied 18 ounces of Roundup over-the-top and Orthene.
“I'll hit it with another 16 ounces to 20 ounces of Roundup with Trimax for plant bugs,” Mark said.
“From then on, we'll watch our plant bugs and apply Pix.”
One key for McNabb was that the corn crop of 2002 “came off so early that we could put our wheat behind it easy,” Mark said. “It seems like a good system, the way the timing of the crops come off.” But wheat following cotton would probably work, too, noted McNabb. “The planting dates for wheat around here is Nov. 1 to Nov. 15.”
When asked when he expects to harvest his UNR cotton after wheat, Mark noted, “I'm not really sure, I've never done it before. But I expect to be as early as any of the late-planted cotton planted around here.”
The McNabbs will apply Super Boll and Def to defoliate their 1,650 acres of UNR cotton. Seven days later, they'll apply Gramoxone at a pint and half to dry down the plant. “We'll come back seven days after that and strip it.”
The McNabb's UNR cotton will be harvested with two John Deere strippers. They like the speed of the strippers, the 100 percent harvesting efficiency, and conversely, no scrapping costs. “And they're a whole lot cheaper to run and purchase than a spindle picker,” Mark said. “Also, we're saving one trip by not scrapping and another because if you strip cotton, you're not required to cut the stalks for boll weevil eradication. It's all labor conservation on the UNR cotton.”
On the other hand, his ginner and merchandiser are considering discounting UNR cotton. McNabb doesn't think all the charges are fair, especially when he takes precautions to minimize trash and bark in UNR cotton.
“Our cotton looks so clean in the modules that it's hard to tell it from the wide-row, Joseph said.
“It's got a few sticks in it,” Mark added. “That's what they're complaining about.”
The McNabbs refuse to be discouraged, however. In fact, they've become quite attached to UNR cotton over the last few years. “I can spray my whole crop in three days with two sprayers,” Mark said. “And my total fuel costs are 30 to 40 cents an acre. I love it.”